Category Archives: Conversation

New posts coming

I am obviously behind on this blog. And now I’m more behind: I brought back a pile of books from my trip to Seoul back in November of last year (1, 2, 3). So there’ll be new content here soon.

In particular, I plan to write about Listen to the City’s Protest as I think it presents a number of useful things to think about in the current political climate. A number of the things I wanted to write about have already come to pass–major protests here in the US and considerations of how to maintain political action in order to effectively affect change rather than simply channel anger or disappointment.

And there are some fluffier books that are more fun to talk about.

And a new conversation about considerations when building a library for an academic institution. It’s been conducted, I’ve just got to find time to transcribe it…

Something for everyone.

Good stuff.

A Conversation with Sangyon Joo of Datz Press

Portrait: Sangyon Joo, photographer and publisher of Datz PressOn October 26th, Sangyon Joo of Datz Press came by KPB HQ to talk about her experiences as a publisher, curator and photographer. We’d first met during Printed Matter’s Art Book Fair at PS1 when I stopped by the Datz Press booth. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

MNM: Sangyon, thank you so much for making the time to come out to Brooklyn for this conversation. I am delighted to have you here and looking forward to the conversation.

SYJ: This is the fifth issue in our magazine, Gitz. Our conversation reminds me of somebody we profiled in the magazine, a Korean book collector who collects books about Korea. The books he collects were made by Western people who came to Korea in the early years, a hundred years ago. They saw the Korean people and culture and archived their observations in books. They collected and spread exotic cultures in their home countries. He goes to Western bookstores to collect these books about Korea and brings them back to Korea to show to us. It says a lot to me about how books work and how books can go around sharing culture. I think it is a very interesting job mixing Western views of Korea—we can see ourselves through their eyes and can find ourselves through their eyes. Something really great can be done with books.
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A Conversation with Jorg Colberg

Back in June, Jörg Colberg posted a weekly photobook review at CPhMag.com that he prefaced with some thoughts relevant to readers of Korean Photography Books. I reached out to Jörg, and he was gracious enough to expand on those thoughts in a brief conversation. The conversation took place via e-mail in early July; it has not been edited except for the addition of links to articles he refers to.

Michael N. Meyer (KoreanPhotographyBooks): Could you sketch out, very briefly, your background, and your roles within the photography world for any readers of this blog who might not know who you are?

Jörg Colberg: I have a background in theoretical astrophysics (computational cosmology). Now, I’m probably most widely known through my website CPhMag.com, which is the latest version of what used to be a blog (“Conscientious”) and which focuses on contemporary photography. I earn my living through teaching photography, as one of the core faculty of the fairly new Limited Residency Photography MFA Program at Hartford Art School, besides the occasional essay or interview for a publication. I’m also currently working on a book about photobooks, albeit not a survey book, but rather a book about how to approach photobook making.

KPB: You sum up the preface to a recent post, Photobook Reviews (W21/2015), with an offhanded comment about all of the books on photobooks and the increasing balkanization created by such publications. You ask this as a kind of joke, but I suspect you made light of it only because to do otherwise would require an entire blog post of its own or indeed an entire book. I’d like to orient this conversation around the reasoning of your preface: that there are a helluva lot of photobooks being produced, that photographers are not going to stop producing these books, and that consumers, critics and academics will need to find strategies to deal with this wealth of material. Furthermore, much of this material is outside of what might be considered the mainstream canon–which brings up questions of the usefulness of a shared canon and the limits of slicing photography into ever thinner slivers.

JC: Given how heavily fragmented the photobook world is, slicing and dicing it up even further might be of limited utility. It certainly won’t do much to expand the photobook out of its rather narrow confines (you’ll see the same faces at every photobook festival). I’m saying that the photobook world is fragmented, based on my own experience with it. See, for example this. I look at a lot of books, and I know a lot of people who do the same. But it’s often surprising how few books we all share as having heard of. And almost none of them are part of whatever a mainstream canon might even be.

KPB: What strategies do you use to create order and logic of the flood of titles being published? I’m thinking personal strategies specifically, but as a follow up, would you define your role as critic as helping your audience find order in the swirling chaos of photobooks or photography more broadly?

JC: I’m not sure I have a strategy. I basically react to books I see, hear of, or find in whatever way (I get a lot of submissions from people). I can’t afford traveling to all those festivals, and even if I could, I doubt I’d go. The flood of titles doesn’t worry me too much. It’s exciting, and there are always surprises. But of course, the vast majority of published photobooks are really not very good at all.

As a critic, I see my role as someone critically examining photobooks and photography. Of course, that’s a circular way to talk about this (isn’t that what critics do? But then, you’d be surprised to see the number of people who think it’s criticism when you copy some text from a press release and add a little bit of a description). But I think that’s a difficult enough task, and it’s hard to do it well. I do believe (or at least hope) that examining books critically and helping others approach them will ultimately help everybody find some sort of order. I personally wouldn’t necessarily attempt to identify an order, given it would be my order, and there are already enough people who proclaim how things work (without explaining too much why they make their choices).

KPB: What importance, if any, is there in broadening the pool of work under consideration by identifying cultural histories of one kind or another that aren’t being seen or written about? In your role as critic or educator do you feel any responsibility for actively doing this? (How fascinating might that very photography history “North-Eastern Lithuanian” that you jokingly mention in your post be? It might also be a dead end or a stultifying backwater, but how would we know until someone looks and writes usefully about it?)

JC: There are various cultural strands that people are following currently. My main problem with something like a “North-Eastern Lithuanian” history is that if it stays that, it’s of very limited utility. Last year, I moderated a panel on what was billed as “Japanese photography,” and the members of the panel agreed very quickly that thinking about “Japanese photography” as something that was completely different than, say, “German photography” was really not very helpful. So I think there’s nothing wrong with a “North-Eastern Lithuanian” history of photobooks – as long as it tells us more about photobooks and photography history in general, and doesn’t just carve out yet another niche.

So yes, in my role as critic and educator I do attempt to bring things always to the photography at the core, because that is, after all, what we have at the core. All the rest, all those things we see, those assumptions, that ideology we bring to it – that’s just piled on. I know I got my own ideology, but I do think it’s very important not to confuse ideology with what’s in the pictures.

KPB: Diverse fields of academic inquiry have tended towards dissecting smaller and smaller slices of the world. To what extent is it still useful to seek an overarching picture of a global history of photography? Asked another way–is an agreed upon canon still useful?

JC: I would probably argue along the lines of something I wrote about what I thought good criticism for me amounted to: an attempt to make sense, an attempt to bring useful criteria to the table that can then be used to get to a deeper understanding of photography. Whether or not we need an agreed-upon canon I don’t know. There is something to be said for the work John Szarkowski did, however limited it was. After all, he did attempt to make sense of things, something that cannot be said about the people who are now curators at MoMA. Why we can’t have a group of people who do that I don’t know.

But the canon(s) aside, the moment you know how to approach photography, you understand a lot more about photography, regardless of whether you’re aware of the (or a) canon. And that then is what I spoke of earlier concerning “Japanese photography” (or “German photography” or whatever else). I suppose this really boils down to knowing of a canon really only means something if you can read pictures. Otherwise, it’s just like knowing that 1812 was some special moment in US history, but you don’t really know much else.

There are a large variety of topics that keep propping up in photography’s history, and it certainly is important to be aware of them. We don’t need to be constantly re-inventing the wheel. And regardless of whether we agree with how history has been written, to understand it (and possibly re-write it) we need to know what went on and why (and what it means in terms of the pictures).

I don’t know whether this answers your question. In the end, it all boils down to the question “What is in the picture?” If you can’t give a good answer for that, your knowledge of a history or canon of photography is useless.

KPB: Jörg, thank you so much for taking the time to share your perspective and understanding.

Full Metal Jacket, Suejin Shin

This blog is a side project for me. First and foremost I am a working commercial photographer and a fine art photographer. Like many photographers, I am fascinated by other photographers’ work because of the ideas that it germinates in my own process. Photo-books are the primary means through which I do this.

Full Metal Jacket is not a photo book exactly; instead, it is a book of informal photographic theory seeking to tease out the cognitive and psychological elements underlying individual photographic processes. Suejin Shin brought together five photographers from different generations and different geographical locations with disparate working methods for a series of ten conversations over nine months. These conversations begin with a particular prompt and grow organically as the discussions unfold. From her introduction:

…the greatest virtue of art comes from raising questions. We began by talking shop, so to speak, about the concerns we share as artists using photography as a medium, swapping insights about our work and its limitations. We talked about what it takes to keep on producing work and why we are compelled to press on even when that spark is lacking. We asked questions to each other and found answers in ourselves.

Here then is access to the working thoughts of five of the best photographers and one of the best curators working in Korea today–or, for that matter, in photography anywhere. The photographers are Bohnchang Koo, Taewon Jang, Hein-Kuhn Oh, Oksun Kim and Sungsoo Khim. These names will be familiar to anyone who has even a passing knowledge of Korean photography. The work of most of these photographers have been discussed on this blog (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) or are in The Queue.

The book is broken into two volumes (supposedly sold together, though I purchased them separately from two different shops). The primary volume includes Shin’s introduction, a small portfolio of work by each photographer and three dialogs, one of which is broken into two parts. The book’s second volume is an English translation of the dialogs. The quarto sized volumes have softcover bindings with lightweight uncoated stock and very good reproduction quality. The design is simple and sparse–allowing the text and images to stand center stage.

The three topics of conversation are “Obsession: Where I Begin,” “Things That Dominate My Work 1 & 2” and “What Keeps You Working”. These three topics form a kind of operating manual for photographers. These are very much the topics that are central in books like Art & Fear, Core Curriculum or The Education of a Photographer, to name three that are on my bookshelf and ignore the dozens of others out there. What makes Full Metal Jacket unique is that it is in the form of conversations. This gives it a very accessible tone that makes engaging with the ideas under discussion easier.

This conversational form is engaging also because the reader begins formulating responses to the anecdotes being shared and questions being posed. One can feel the push and pull of personalities, too. I found myself at turns nodding and at others shaking my head. By way of example, in the first dialog abstraction and repetition are discussed. Oh says that, “Photography is an art form where where you take a very specific subject and make it an abstract theme by showing it repeatedly.” Shin disagrees with Oh’s use of the word “abstraction.” In my mind I reversed his assertion: that we take abstract themes and flesh them out by selecting, sequencing and showing very specific concrete subjects. That repetition is not making concrete subjects abstract so much as serving to make abstract ideas concrete. The discussion nudged me to consider not only how I might re-read Oh’s photographs but also how I might re-consider my own.

When I described the book I noted that each photographer presented a small portfolio of work or work in process. To this point, I’ve not mentioned these photographs because they are not what I feel is the driving content of the book. The photography is supplementary. It enlivens the conversation while grounding it in visual concreteness. Taewan Jang shows the work photographs that have since been published by Hatje Cantz as Stained Ground. Oksun Kim shows photographs pulled from the earlier Hamel’s Boat and some more recently published as The Shining Things. Sungsoo Khim’s portraits leave me flat while her tree studies are stark, haunting and ripe; they ought to be put into a book if they haven’t already. Oh’s “Portraying Anxiety” works are as fraught with emotional intensity as his previous portraits, though they visually blend with his Cosmetic Girls. I’d have preferred to see a larger selection of his in-process “2 Minute Portraits” that he discusses in the text. Bohnchang Koo shows a diverse range of photographs that highlights the full range of projects he’s working on and speaks about in the text. Objet 22, 2009 and Arm & Armor 03, 2010 are near polar opposites yet both wonderful and testify to Koo’s ability to assimilate anything into his personal oeuvre.

In most of the reviews that I write, I am seeking to place the work at hand into a cultural context and present a possible interpretation. This is the central functioning of criticism: to define what the work is and why it is of value (or not). In this case, Full Metal Jacket‘s dialogs do much of my work for me. I am, a bit superfluous, especially in regards to the second part of the critic’s job. I will close by simply recommending this book highly, if one can find it.

Full Metal Jacket
Suejin Shin with Bohnchang Koo, Taewon Jang, Hein-kuhn Oh, Oksun Kim & Sungsoo Khim
Assistant Curator: Youna Kim
Copy Editing: Jeongeun Kim, Kyoungeun Kim
Translation Korean to English: Yoona Cho
Design: Yeounjoo Park
Printing and Binding: Munsung, South Korea
IANNBOOKS
2013

A Conversation with Kyusang Lee and Misook Ahn of Noonbit

MNM: This is Michael Meyer, the publisher and writer of KoreanPhotographyBooks.com; I am sitting here with Lee Kyusang and Ahn MiSook of Noonbit Publishing Co. as well as my wife, Ji Young Lee who will be translating and asking follow up questions. Mr. Lee and Ms. Ahn, let’s start with the easy questions: what is the history of Noonbit and your background in photography. Were you photographers, or editors, or, before beginning Noonbit, did you come from another division in publishing?

Kyusang Lee: Originally, what we studied was Korean literature and writing. As you know, every Korean male must serve in the army, so I did too. After I finished studying I became an editor in a publisher producing art books. My wife, who is the chief editor… Continue reading

A Conversation with Suejin Shin

Michael N. Meyer: This is Michael Meyer, the publisher and writer of KoreanPhotographyBooks.com; I am sitting here with Suejin Shin, who is the Creative Director of the Ilwoo Foundation, and a Research Professor of Yonsei University.

Suejin Shin: Right.

Jimin Han: And a director of Lamp LAB, brand-new [laughter].

MNM: And also with me is Jimin Han, who is translating for me and interjecting follow up questions. Suejin, let’s start with your background. You have multiple degrees in photography and in psychology. How did you come to bring those two things together? How did you come to use psychology as a lens to understand and expand upon photography?

Suejin Shin, Lamp LAB, Seoul

Suejin Shin at Lamp LAB, November 2014

SJS: My first major was psychology, and my second major was photography. I then got a master’s degree in photography and a PHD in psychology. My studies of photography were primarily in photographic theory. I’ve never intended to be a professional photographer. In studying psychology my focus was on vision, or visual perception, and Cognitive Science. I simply followed my curiosity in studying the two; I wondered what kind of feelings or thoughts people have when they see photographic images. It’s about what people feel when they see images. It’s about feeling, or the process of thinking. In other words, when they see certain images, they come to have certain feelings or thoughts. My main interest lies in where they come from.

Generally, the background fields of art theory are commonly art histories or something similar; so, many people wonder how psychology can be applied to these fields. I’m interested in photographic images, but it is the audience I observe in order to realize my interest.
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Graphic Magazine #30: Publishers **Correction 1/14/15**

Cover, Graphic Magazine #30: Publishers. (Image hotlinked; apologies to Graphic Magazine)
Quickly: Graphic Magazine #30 features interview with ten publishing companies. Check it out.

Graphic Magazine is put out by Propaganda Press. On my last visit to Seoul I picked up Park Sung Jin’s Kid Nostalgia published by PP that I’m looking forward to writing about once I’ve had the time to spend some time with it.

Korea Bound

I am on my way to Korea. I’ll be touching down on Friday the 22nd of November and staying through December 7th. This will be a trip split between family and work projects.

On the work front, I’ll be checking out the latest publications at my favorite bookshops, visiting a couple of bookshops in cities I’ve not yet visited, doing a bit of gallery hopping in Seoul, checking out new photography venues that I’ve (foolishly) overlooked to date, conducting an interview (or two or three) for this blog, and shooting for myself.

If any readers are interested in grabbing coffee and talking photo books, I’d be delighted to connect. Shoot me an e-mail; let’s make something happen.

Franticham’s Polaroid Correspondence

Printed Matter’s annual NY Art Book Fair was held at PS1 a couple of weekends ago. It was crowded and noisy. And there were a lot of people there too.

Several weeks before the fair, I noticed on the list of exhibitors one exhibitor from Korea: Antic-ham. I clicked over to the artist’s site–a mix of drawing, collage, printmaking and photography. It is by turns playful, sexy, political and personal. Weaving all of this together is bookmaking. I ordered half a dozen books on the spot, which I enjoyed opening immensely.

At the NYABF, I made a beeline to the Red Fox Press table, which Antic-ham shared with Francis van Meale of Red Fox Press. Together, Francis and Antic-ham are Franticham. They make art as individuals and as a couple. I purchased a couple of their joint books at the fair, of which Franticham’s Polaroid Correspondence was one. It seems like the perfect encapsulation of their relationship and bookmaking. Distance, cross-cultural dialogue, collage, mail art, and Polaroid photography mix with heady emotion.

On the title page of the wire bound volume, the book explains its genesis:

During 6 weeks Francis in Achill Island and Antic-Ham in Seoul exchanged by mail their experiences and feelings with A5 postcards with collage and using Polaroid pictures made with SX-70 cameras and color Silver Shade PX films from the Impossible Project.

Newspaper clippings, packaging, stamps, address labels, drawings and Polaroid prints are collaged together. The Polaroids are captioned with personal notes and dated. These were posted back and forth. They appear to be further collaged in the book making process. They make references to shared experiences in Seoul, hint at a future together in Achill Island and riff on the longing and quotidian realities of the six weeks that lay between the before and the ever after time periods.

Correspondance is a kind of oppositional companion to Oksun Kim’s Happy Together. Kim’s book of photographs of inter-racial Korean/Non-Korean couples is informed by her own inter-racial marriage but maintains a cool detachment through an anthropological process. It examines these relationships. Franticham’s book, in contrast, is entirely personal. It is messy, raw and emotional. Dada and Fluxus sensibilities are at play throughout. Happy Together feels clinical (or, perhaps, too close to home). Correspondence feels exciting, honest, alive.

The physical book furthers this sensibility. Like Franticham’s and Anticham’s other books, Correspondence doesn’t take itself too seriously. The wire binding, handmade collage front cover and roughly printed pages (color copier?) are loose, loving and playful.

[To be clear, their dedication to their art making and book making is entirely serious. While I would consider their art making to be more termite than white elephant, their large screen printed publications are amazing and beautiful, though unfortunately too rich for my budget. I highly recommend checking out these other books, which include London Palm Trees, Grand Bazaar and New York New York, if the opportunity presents itself.]

Franticham’s Polaroid Correspondence is delightfully earnest and heartfelt. Neither making grand claims nor engaging cosmic truths, it takes the reader on a voyeuristic romp through the couple’s long distance creative embrace. This author, for one, wishes them many productive years together.

Franticham’s Polaroid Correspondence
Franticham (Francis van Meale & Antic-Ham)
Red Fox Press
Edition of 69, numbered and signed
2012

Franticham at Printed Matter Art Book Fair @ PS1

I spent a rushed hour swinging through Printed Matter‘s NY Art Book Fair at PS1 this afternoon. The museum was a veritable zoo; to say it was thronged would be an understatement. With all the bumping and brushing of the crowds, I found it difficult to take in the books or to really focus on them. Next year I’ll be sure to go on the Friday when the crowds are thinner and the focus is on seeing rather than being seen. It was a bit of a scene today.

While there were dozens of publishers showing hundreds (thousands?) of books, the highlight of the fair for me was a quick conversation with Anticham and Francis van Meale of the Red Fox Press. I find their books delightful and I bought two to add to the half dozen I already own. Tomorrow’s review will be about one of these books. A future review will look at a broader selection of books by them. Hopefully we can figure out an interview somehow sometime soon.

If you’re in New York you should cancel all of your plans for Sunday and head over to PS1 to check out the fair. It’s hot, noisy and crowded, but it’s worth braving these hassles to see the full breadth of Franticham’s oeuvre. Their new book of screen printed LA-scapes is fantastic (though a bit out of my reach). And there’s plenty of other stuff to see at the fair, something for every taste.

Bad photographer that I am, I didn’t take any pictures. Not even with my cellphone.